Tag Archives: spirit

Animism and artificial intelligence

One of my core principles as an animist is to relate to everything as though it might be capable of intention, feeling and preference. This is not a position that requires either belief or evidence, it is first and foremost an ethical position about treating everything kindly and with respect. When it comes to natural things – including inanimate natural things and places, I do not find it difficult to assume the presence of spirit.

When it comes to objects made by humans, my scope for understanding things as having spirit is variable. I like the Japanese idea that given enough time, anything will develop spirit – older items made with love and used with care and respect over time certainly develop character. I’ve always experienced music instruments as being people in their own right.

I’ve seen people talking about AI art software in terms of this being a genuinely emergent intelligence. That’s not something I agree with – we aren’t all helping to train an artificial brain that will spontaneously create original and new art in the future. We’re teaching software to steal and recycle on command. But… if everything is potentially capable of intent and feeling, why am I so reluctant to attribute those qualities to the art-theft software currently being used to make products?

Having been round this a lot in recent days, I come to the conclusion that it is because the software being used to steal art is doing exactly what it was intended to do. At present, it seems to be doing what it was designed for, in brief bursts that depend on other people using it. I’m responding in much the same way as when I don’t attribute a great deal of presence or intent to crisp packets, even when I’m trying to remove them as part of litter picks.

There are bits of software I’ve related to in ways other than this. Many years ago, before social media, when Yahoo egroups were a thing, we used to joke about what kind of sacrifices you might have to make to win the favour of Yahoo and to stop it from randomly punishing you. I’m finding Facebook much the same – an erratic and jealous entity that does not reliably cooperate and that may lash out at you for no obvious reason. Things seem more capable of intent when they aren’t simply doing what we made them to do. 

It’s interesting to consider what seems like an entity in its own right, and what seems like an expression of human will and desire where that’s simply been expressed through something outside of a human form. Clearly there’s nowhere a hard line can be drawn, but I think there’s a lot to be said for asking about our own relationships and feelings. What defines something as an entity in its own right? 

Spirits in the land

Some places have very distinct atmospheres, and sometimes this can include a feeling of presence. My understanding of this is cautious, but based on long term relationships with places that have very distinct atmospheres, and places that do not.

If I walk from my home along the nearby cycle path, there’s a gentle atmosphere, but nothing much. This is a place heavily used by people, bats, foxes and others. There are some very distinct individuals amongst the trees, and there are places other creatures frequent. When I walk this way, I experience a great host of individuals, including two springs and a stream, and all that lives amongst the trees.

Not far from the cycle path is an old cemetery built on the site of a Roman villa (look up the Orpheus mosaic in Woodchester if you’re curious). This is a place with a lot of history and ancestry in the soil and it has a distinct atmosphere. Again I experience this as the combined effect of a lot of individual presences.

However, there’s a lane I can follow from here up towards the top of the hill. There is a place on the lane where a stream crosses the path, and here there is a presence. There is something beyond the many individuals living on the land. I’m always keenly aware of this presence when I come to this spot and my guess is that it’s associated with the spring at the head of the stream. The only way to reach the spring would be to wade up the stream and I have a strong feeling that this would not be good or welcome.

Coming into contact with this presence is something I find powerful and affecting. I don’t bother it in any way because I have a strong sense that it wants nothing from me. This is often my experience when I have a sense of presence in a landscape. They don’t want anything from me and they don’t want to offer me anything. My sense of their existing is enough for me.

I’m wary of the urge to extract meaning from this kind of experience. It’s really important to me to go to these places where I feel presence and to remind myself of enchantment and possibility. I don’t ask for anything beyond that. I am not called upon to do anything. I actually like feeling that this is not a purposeful relationship. I am not being taught, or guided or otherwise improved by the experience – because this is simply a presence doing what it does. I am not needed or significant. I am not singled out for specialness by having a special relationship. I’m fortunate in having these experiences and that’s all there is to it for me.

I acknowledge that there were many times in my life when I longed to have something spiritual or supernatural single me out for attention in some way. I wanted to be important. I have a lot of personal issues around needing to feel like I matter. I’ve learned to be glad simply to have experiences, and I’m becoming more relaxed around not seeking significance. Increasingly, it is enough just to be and to feel.

Nature and spirit

There are (I think) three key ways of considering the relationship between nature and spirit. Which approach you favour will inform how you do your Druidry.

Option 1 – nature is everything, there is no spirit in nature other than life itself. This is atheist Paganism and it means engaging with the world in a rational way and not seeking anything magical or non-scientific. It tends to foster pragmatic relationships with the natural world but does not rule out numinous experience or a sense of wonder.

Option 2 – everything that exists in nature is possessed of spirit. The material world is alive with presence. This perspective will incline you to see every living being as precious and capable of having opinions and preferences. It opens the way to encountering other-than-human people and is consistent with an understanding of reality that has a lot of room for enchantment and wonder. Any encounter with wild things may be laden with significance, but the power lies in the encounter and you are a spirit present in the world encountering other spirits who are present in the world.

Option 3 – spirit manifests through nature. Wild things can therefore be being moved by some greater force and may have some message for you or be there to teach or guide you. I struggle with this one because I prefer to see living beings as existing in their own right and not being here to bring us messages. This approach can be problematically human-centric. It does however open the way to seeing every encounter as laden with potential for meaning and magic. It is probably the strongest option for the person seeking enchantment and wishing to re-enchant their own lives. I have no doubt it is also possible to see the physical world as spirit manifesting without having to attach personal meanings to everything and to instead see the living world as a means to commune with something greater that lies beyond it.

What does it mean to step outside and see a bird, or a cloud or a really nice rock? How does that encounter fit into your world view? How does your world view inform how you interpret your experiences? What do you want to experience and what do you want from the wild things around you?

Hearing the voice of spirit

Back in my Midlands days, the call for peace in ritual often ended with the words ‘for without peace, the voice of spirit cannot be heard.’ What does it mean to hear the voice of spirit? It’s a gloriously open phrase that will mean different things depending on your belief. You might believe there’s an all pervading spirit in reality and that you can tune into it. If you believe in deities, then the voice of spirit will be the voices of those deities. It could mean totems, or guides, ancestors, angels, higher self, divine self, or in an animistic sense, the voices of spirits.

You don’t have to believe in anything outside of science to explore the voice of spirit – you can simply work with your own spirit, your own wisdom, your best self or however you prefer to frame it.

To hear the voice of spirit, you need a quiet, open but not disciplined mind. If you’re deeply involved in a spiritual or meditative practice, then you may tune out or dismiss the wandering thoughts that are some kind of magic happening. If you’re trying too hard to get a big important message, the odds are you’ll only hear your own need reflected back to you.

To gather inspiration as I write this blog, I’m pausing every few lines to gaze out of the window at the snow falling. I can do the same with clouds, small birds in the trees. I can do this listening to the stream, or the wind. Anything that absorbs me gently, engages me lightly, takes me a little bit out of myself but not entirely out of myself. Dance and drumming and chanting can play the same role. Here but not entirely here. Calm enough not to be entirely caught up in my own thoughts, making space for something else.

As a bare minimum, if I do this, my head will clear of irrelevant, boring things and I will become able to think more broadly, or deeply or randomly about something, and what I think will have significance. It may be useful. It may be the phrases to pull a blog post together.

Given time, luck, and a sprinkling of mystery, and I will start hearing something I recognise as myself. More a deeper self than a higher self – it’s not got authority or purity, but it is the voice that comes from the heart of me. The voice of my essence. It’s the voice I need to find if I’m going to answer big life questions, make radical changes, plan for the future or deal with the baggage of the past. It’s the slow moving cud chewing part of me. It isn’t super-wise or always right, but it knows who I am right now, and where I am, and what I want.

Sometimes, there are other voices. Small, soft voices. They seldom say much at all. Voices of inspiration, or land, or elements, or dreams or owls or… I don’t really know. I’m fine with not knowing, I don’t feel it’s productive to interrogate them. I don’t hear them very often. They do not ask things of me, or give me information about how to succeed. They drop small, odd thoughts into the little pool of my mind and there are ripples, and I do with that what I can. And while what comes is not a demand or a request, if I take up those words and explore them, work with them, inhabit them, they always change me and take me forward. Forward in the sense that starfish move forward, I tend to feel.

I don’t hear words of power or authority. I don’t get big, important messages for other people. I get small pokes and nudges, like being tipped off to the whereabouts of a tiny fairy door that you have to scrabble in the leaf litter to even see properly, and will sit outside for weeks, years, confident that you can’t possibly be going to go through that… and then maybe one day, some other insight will come along and the door will no longer seem so tiny, and off you go…

Hearing the voice of spirit

…for without peace, the voice of spirit cannot be heard.

Hearing your own voice, your own spirit, is absolutely key to being able to think clearly and to engage with the world. Modern life readily fills the head with noise and clutter. We create environments that barrage us with overloads of information, noise, people, activity and all of it making demands on our awareness. Half of your mind may well be working hard just to tune all the rubbish out while the rest… work and family, dinner, shopping, what was on TV last night, what a neighbour said, something in the news… its easy to spend most of the time with a head full of half processed ideas, half formed thoughts, barely chewed input, and undigested information. Amidst all of this chaos, there isn’t much scope for thinking like a Druid or hearing the voice of spirit – yours, much less anything else’s.

This is primarily a post for people who are trying to get started, trying to work out how to become a Druid. However, the exercise is a good one, and works any time there’s too much white noise between the ears and you need some clarity.

First, make time. At least a couple of hours. If you aren’t willing to give a few hours to your spiritual self, you’ve got problems that go far beyond the ‘how to be a Druid’ issue. Find the time. Make the time. Get some sensible shoes, carry a drink and some snacks, turn the phone off, and walk. Go somewhere you won’t meet people you know and get side tracked into chatting. Countryside and trees are good, but use what you’ve got. If you aren’t physically able to walk, then swimming works too, up and down in the lanes, and if that’s beyond you, just shoot for getting some quiet space.

There are several advantages to walking. Firstly it makes you unavailable to anyone who might want to demand your time and attention. This gives you valuable space. Secondly it engages you outside with the landscape – urban ones work just as well as rural ones really. Thirdly, after long enough, the rhythm of walking has an effect on your mind. If you run well enough to be able to run and think about something else, odds are running will work too.

The likelihood is that for at least the first half hour, your mind will still be full of white noise. This is fine, don’t try and fight it or suppress it. Try to follow those thoughts through, deal with them, tidy them up. It takes as long as it takes. Between the letting yourself think, and the rhythm of walking, a process will happen, by which all that noise and inner muddle slowly resolves out into one, coherent voice. One stream of thought that is deliberate and focused. Your own voice.

Once you find that inner voice, then getting it back becomes ever easier, and the more time you spend with it, the more normal it becomes to be clear headed and thinking in a calm and deliberate way. This in turn paves the way to being able to properly think about your life and its challenges. You stop being someone who reacts, and can become someone who acts. That alone is incredibly powerful. Having your soul voice present to you makes it possible to meditate and undertake deep contemplation work with far greater ease.

When you know what your own voice sounds like, the rubbish that gets flung at your head from the outside becomes that much more distasteful. You will start wanting to preserve your peace and the integrity of your mind. This will affect the technology, entertainment and situations you expose yourself to, and this in turn changes how you are able to think. A process, cyclical in nature, begins, in which you become ever more yourself, ever more clear within yourself and ever more able to resist the things that deprive you of your inner calm and ability to hear the song of your own soul.

It begins with a walk, long enough to enter your own quiet.

Baebes in the Cathedral

Last night I went to see Mediaeval Baebes perform at Gloucester Cathedral. I think they’re an amazing group and have followed their progress with interest from that first album. It was mediaeval songs and for reasons that escape me, anything of that ilk seems Christmasy to a lot of people. If you’ve not heard them, I have no doubt youtube can fill the gaps in your knowledge.
The Baebes do anachronism in a way that I love. That urge towards a mix of historical and new always draws me, as with things Steampunk. In this case it’s a mix of words and tunes from the time before major and minor scales, and the days of Latin and Middle English, with wilder, modern beats, really modern arrangements and an energy that simply is not like anything else. I like eclecticism. I studied music formally until I was 19, including exposure to 20th Century art music. Generally classical music does not do it for me, it never goes far enough and I respond more to the raw, earthy qualities of folk. Somehow, Mediaeval Baebes combine the technical skills of more classical music with the innovation of 20th Century art music and the human passion of folk. I like it, a lot.
Gloucester Cathedral has fantastic acoustics, and last night’s music seemed designed to engage with the echoes of big Church spaces. There was also a really interesting blend of Pagan and Christian content. Much of the mediaeval material in the repertoire is gothic in its Christianity, full of ideas about corporeal decay and the transience of the flesh. There were pieces taken from the Pendle witch trials, exorcisms and other unlikely sources alongside things that were songs back in the day. A real adventure in ideas and cross-pollination.
Perhaps the strangest moment of the whole night came at the start, when someone acting on behalf of the cathedral got into the pulpit and undertook prayer. Now, I like cathedrals as performance spaces but I never feel easy about taking people who came as an audience and, because it’s a church, making them pray. I think you do better PR for religion by not pulling stunts like that. But that’s what we got. And after the amplified ‘amen’ of the speaker, came silence. As a Pagan it is my habit to sit in respectful silence through other people’s prayers. There must have been a good 500 people in the audience, and not one ‘amen’ into the silence after the prayer. A long and uneasy silence, as I felt it.
The cathedral hums and reverberates to music and clapping, as though it had been built for the express purpose of being filled with song. At one point, there was a solo voice piece that had a distinctly Arabic/Islamic feel, and I wondered if anyone had ever sung from that tradition and in that space before. It worked. The building held that sound as beautifully as any other, and while there was a strangeness to it, there was also a rightness.
There is nothing more likely to turn a person off from religion than cold, formulaic content that washes over and does not affect the listener. There is nothing more conducive to spiritual experience than beauty that appeals to the senses. They were temple dancers and priestesses, they were invocations to wild goddesses and to the Virgin Mary, they poured a vast array of emotions and ideas into the great space of the cathedral, and the space resonated to their singing as though it loved them in turn. Maybe it did. And whether we connect that feeling of being uplifted to a God, or a Goddess, or human endeavour, or community… doesn’t really matter. It’s the innate soulfulness that really counts.
After the awkward prayer, there was awkward silence. After the Mediaeval Baebes, there was clapping and happiness.

Inner wilderness

I’ve read Women who run with the wolves (Clarissa Pinkola Estes) twice now and the idea of connection between wilderness and inner wilderness has been with me for a long time as a consequence. Mostly as a theory. I let myself become domesticated and mostly tame a long time ago. My creature self chafed at the bit, and frequently tried to misbehave, get off the leash, wanted to run and hide and do all the needful things that would give me my life back. But I wore the leash for a long time, and it was not wholly of my own making.

The last few years have been a time of retreat for me. We’ve lived quietly, close to nature, with not much stuff. Evenings of candlelight and soft talking. A lot of walks and cycling. I’ve not held responsibility for anything much outside my own family, and I’ve been very much caught up in the practical realities of boat life. That might seem like further taming and domestication, but it hasn’t been. I learned how to howl, and how to laugh from my belly. I learned how to grieve, and how to be angry. Bit by bit, I let that animal self express, and breathe.

I know when to turn the computer off and go outside. I know when, and how to say ‘no’ to anything that needs saying no to. As a side effect I’ve come to feel a lot more able to say ‘yes’ as well.

These last few months I’ve been out in the world again, doing events, seeing people I’d not seen for years, re-connecting. In the last week I’ve been invited to a Druid gathering, and to be on standby as a mummer, just in case. Old threads come into the new weave. I’ve worn skirts again – of necessity it’s mostly been trousers. But I’m dressing more like I did in my college days and I feel more like a me I can recognise. It’s a good process.

I can feel, in a really tangible way, the wildness on the inside waking up again. Not like it was before though. This is a wildness that knows where its roots are. The wildness of a forest tree that has deep and stable connections with its soil. The wildness of birds that know how to do all the things that make them birds and keep them alive. The wildness of my communal, sociable friend the badger, pottering about, wide arsed and badgery. Nature comes in many forms. Wildness is not all growly and in your face and shagging everything, necessarily. My wildness runs on its toes, and dances more easily than walking, and has an uncanny knack for spotting rodents. I know what I am. I know who I am, roughly, and the more I test it, the better I feel about things.

It’s been so much about having the space and quiet to get my head straight, and the support of people willing to accept me as I am, and willing to give of themselves. This week I have explored fear, again, but I’ve also stretched my wings a bit, and remembered that I have them, and listened to the owls calling at night. Nature on the inside is just as important as the nature we find outside of us, and if you can’t work with your own animal self, cannot love the mammal skin you are in and the tides of nature as they flow through your body, loving and honouring what lies on the outside of your skin (which incidentally is a fairly arbitrary place to draw a line!) is not easy either. I learned that one the hard way.

The valuing of people

We all make value judgements about people, and we all act to some degree based upon those. It’s a pragmatic necessity. Time, energy, resources are all finite and life requires us to pick and choose. We inevitably pick the people who matter to us in some way – those we need for practical reasons, those who share our blood, or a lot of our history and to whom we feel a sense of duty. We give more to those we admire, whose work we value, who we consider useful or anticipate may become useful to us. How much do we judge the value of another person in terms of their power, status, income and usefulness? How much do we each judge ourselves on those terms? How do we treat the people who do not live up to our value judgements?

Many Druids are animists, understanding spirit to be present in all things. This means all people, too. A little bit of something sacred in every one of us. Often it’s easier to recognise that spark of sacredness in a tree, or a bird, than it is to see it in a drunkard, a loudmouth, a layabout, or whatever else it is that seems worthless to us. Most of the time, most humans do not treat each other as though they see a spark of the sacred within. Even though monotheistic faiths have us created in God’s image, we don’t collectively honour God by honouring that which is divine within each other.

What makes a person worthless? What attributes make a person beyond care or respect? And if we feel the worthlessness of another keenly, should we express that in some way, or keep it private? Our politics are full of the langue of dismissal and denigration – the unworthy poor, the frauds, the scroungers, the cheats…. It’s all about the devaluing of those who lack money, power and status. How much do we believe that, buy into it, support it? Do we only value other humans in terms of their economic power, or their potential for having power over us?

If I tell you that I earn very little, will you value me less? If I tell you that in person I am scruffy and shabby looking, would that change things? What about my work this week, does that matter? If I’ve worked hard, am I a better person than if I took a few days off, or was too sick to do much? Is there anything I could do that would convince you I was a person of particular value and merit? (Or that anyone else could do, for that matter).

I think life is precious. I think the life flowing through any human is just as important as any other kind of life, although in practice, to eat, I have to kill things. They were not less deserving than me of life, to my mind, but this is one of the more challenging facets of how nature works. There are life choices I don’t agree with and ways of being that I don’t value – cruelty, and malice heading up the list there. But I think spirit is everywhere.

Give me any kind of chance, and I will try and see what is best and brightest in you, what is most worthy of praise. Give me chance and I will like you for who you are, not what you earn, or what you might do for me. For my own sanity though, perhaps there are value judgements that I need to make and act on. I’ve spent most of my life jumping through hoops trying to please people. I’m starting to question whether some of those people are capable of being pleased. I can say ‘I respect you as a manifestation of spirit, but frankly your behaviour and attitude suck so I’m not sticking around.’ It’s an interesting theory. If I ever have the nerve to try it in practice, I’ll let you know what happens.

Signs from nature

I recently read a rather new agey book, which talked a lot about the presence of angels (author William Bloom, if anyone was wondering). It included such notions as nature being the face of spirit and that if we pay attention to nature, it will give messages to us. I’ve also recently read a Ross Heaven book on shamanic healing, and that too offered the idea of messages from nature. Now, on one hand I do divination and the idea of simple things that give inspiration and prompt insight works fine for me. But on the other hand…

I spend a lot of time close to nature. I’m living on a small boat on a large canal, there’s a lot of water, trees and wildlife right outside my window and I’m out there in it every day. I see a lot of nature. I’ve watched the grebes diving at twilight, and seen them enough to know perfectly well that they aren’t there for me; they are there for the spot they like to fish in at sunset. I know when the bats and badgers are likely to come out, which bit of towpath the toads favour, where the owls like to perch, and where to hear a cuckoo in the spring.

Encountering any of these things as a one off, they might feel mystical and magical in the sense of conveying specific meaning to me. Living with them every day, I can’t take them as personal omens. I can see how the weather impacts on some of them, seasons, times of day. I see that all the living things around me have their own needs, communities, habits. I will gasp with the sheer pleasure of seeing a tern, I am delighted by the badgers. I know where to find them, and I know I won’t see any of them so much in really bad weather, or at the season when they are elsewhere. There is a magic in experiencing nature.

It seems a touch arrogant, to me, to imagine that the natural world has nothing better to do than run round bringing us messages about whether to apply for that job, or whether to ditch a lover. My honest impression is that unless I am directly interacting with it in some way, the rest of nature couldn’t care less whether I live or die, succeed or fail. If I have bread crusts, the swans will love me, for a little while. If I am noisy, the birds will fly away from me. The more time I spend with them, the less able I am to see patterns of meaning in nature that do not pertain to the other living entities. I am also ever more conscious that these are spirits too, all of them from the tiniest bug on my finger tip to the big fish that occasionally leap at dusk. They are all spirits. They all have their own paths to follow. Do any of them taking my coming and going for an omen?

Of Druidry and time

One of the things I’ve become really conscious of this week, is that engaging with nature has a time element to it. Different parts of the day belong to different entities. The same place has a very different character, set of inhabitants and, arguably, spirit, depending on time of day. While the sun is up, I have birds and butterflies. At twilight the fish are jumping, the bats and owls come out, the toads are more active. Into the night there are foxes, badgers, hedgehogs, and at least rumours of otters. I’ve seen glow bugs lately as well.

We all have to sleep. When we’re asleep, we’re not out there encountering the wildlife or engaging with the spirits of place. I find that I can’t go messing about with my sleep patterns without consequences, so while the odd all nighter, random early morning and the such is ok, mostly for my own wellbeing I need a fairly stable sleep/wake pattern.

One of the consequences of needing to engage with the rest of the world, is that I can’t have the summer sleep pattern I really want. I’m a creature of twilight by preference, but to do dawn and dusk when the nights are so short here, I would need to sleep for a few hours in the middle of the day. One of my longstanding ambitions is to have the time and space for experimenting with how this affects me.

No matter how deep a spiritual bond we have with a space, there will always be things we do not know about it. If I’m watching the fish, I will not see what the birds are doing. The more attention I give to one aspect of what is around me, the more likely I am to miss something in the bigger picture. There are balances to strike, between focus and wider awareness. We need that bigger picture – without context, and a sense of how it all fits together impressions readily distort. We also need the deeper, more involved relationships. And thus we come back to the issue of time. There’s only a finite number of hours at our disposal. I cannot forage with the badgers, and dive with the terns, and sing with the dawn chorus and the evening blackbirds and have time to work and eat and fulfil other duties and needs.

Therefore there are always going to be times when what happens around me remains a mystery.  I may get odd glimpses. When I say ‘hello spirits of place’ even though I know the place well, I hold an awareness that I am also speaking to the mysteries, the unknown, the things that come out to play when I am asleep.

There were eleven badgers last night, one rabbit who I watched for ages, one fleeting visit from a fox cub, and a great number of glow bugs, several bats, and no doubt far more small things that I didn’t see. Hello mysteries.